The local bar forms the heart of many small communities in Italy, but under the country’s latest lockdown easing, continued restrictions mean a lot of its social rituals are still on hold.
Mario Zanetti usually goes to his local bar in a small town in the northern Veneto region to play cards with friends. “We’re no longer allowed to use the cards for risk of contagion,” he says, “and we can’t even sit around a table together.”
Bars and restaurants in Italy were allowed to reopen on Monday for the first time in over two months, but several regulations still remain in place. Clients can consume at the bar or seated at a table but are required to maintain a distance of one meter between them at all times.
Many bars have used tape or spray paint to indicate distances and where customers are permitted to sit and stand. For bars with a small interior space, a limited number of people are allowed inside at a time in order to ensure social distancing.
These restrictions are taking a toll on the social function of the bar, particularly those in small towns.
Maila Benetti runs Fly Caffè in the town of Adria, near Venice. Over the years, she has built up a steady group of regular customers who come to the bar for their morning coffee or evening aperitif. She says the current regulations are affecting her business.
“I can’t have newspapers on the tables,” she says, “or if I do I’d have to cover each page in plastic and wipe it down after each use.”
She is not allowed to offer the free evening buffet for aperitivo and she has made signs indicating the entrance and exit doors and placed tape on the floor by the counter marking distances of one meter.
For local bars, these restrictions affect custom. As one of her morning customers comments, “this is not a bar in Milan, we come here to spend time and talk to other clients and these rules from the government are preventing that.”
The evening is particularly difficult. Benetti explains that people usually come to her bar for two or three hours before dinner, meeting various friends and acquaintances. “When people meet, they buy a drink for each other, and so on,” she says, “and this is a lot of my business.”
While social distancing is in place, these interactions will be limited.
Before reopening on May 18, bars had been permitted to offer a takeaway service. Although takeaway coffees and drinks are not customary in Italy, some bar owners, including Benetti, chose to offer the service in order to maintain a rapport with their regular customers.
Reciprocally, as one bargoer comments, “we’re not used to takeaway drinks in Italy, but we bought them out of respect and support of our local bars.”
While bars in small towns are feeling penalized by social distancing, bars in cities seem less affected. Alessandro Gallina runs the bar El Sbarlefo in Venice. “The new regulations don’t mean much for us,” he comments, “things will be more or less normal.”
With a small interior space, his clients usually take their drinks outside anyway, to tables which were already spaced one meter apart before the regulations came into force. As one of Venice’s popular bacari, traditional bars, people also often only stop for one drink and then move on to the next bacaro.
The new social distancing regulations look likely to be in place for some time, and authorities have warned that they will be tightened again if they are not being adhered to. Milan and Venice have already made headlines for crowds in bars and public spaces, and the President of the Veneto region Luca Zaia has threatened to “close everything again” if people continue to flout the rules.
“I’m relying on my customers to stick to the rules,” says Benetti. “It’s been a hard two months and I don’t want to close again.”